Every Steven Spielberg Movie, Ranked

A comprehensive look back at the filmmaker’s storied career

There hasn’t been a single filmmaker – perhaps in the history of the medium – to capture the popular zeitgeist the way that Steven Spielberg has. Saying something is “Spielbergian” conjures a very specific set of criteria – it probably involves children (or is at least viewed through the honeyed lens of the adolescent experience), an uncanny scenario (archeologist hunts for occult artifacts, dinosaurs return to life) and a potent mixture of both fear and awe, sometimes in the same sequence or same moment. These ideas and concepts are usually conveyed through technically unparalleled camera movements that are still somehow unshowy (we get into the “Spielberg oner” later). He’s the most well-known director of all time and, as 2022’s “The Fabelmans” proved, continues to deliver top-tier entertainment that also doubles as a towering work of art.

He has also made many, many movies. Over his 50+ year career, Steven Spielberg has directed 34 features, with more on the way (how has he never made a western?) And each new Spielberg movie is an event.

We humbly present this comprehensive look back at his filmography – from least great to molecule-rearrangingly amazing:

35. The “Kick the Can” Segment from “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983)

Twilight Zone Kick the Can
Warner Bros.

Steven Spielberg directing a segment for a “Twilight Zone” movie (one that he also produced) feels like the perfect pairing of filmmaker and property. After all, Spielberg’s early movie “Duel” was based on a story by Richard Matheson, who wrote more than a dozen episodes of the original series and several more installments of subsequent revivals. But after an on-set tragedy led to the death of three people, Spielberg veered away from the original episode he intended to adapt and instead went with a new iteration of “Kick the Can,” a forgettable episode from 1962 about old people who are granted temporary youth. All of the things that critics claim Spielberg is – sugary-sweet, relying on magic instead of emotional truth – are contained within this segment. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s honeyed score can’t do much to improve this nonsense, which stars Scatman Crothers as the worst kind of “Magical Negro” cliché and feels infinitely longer than the other, nastier segments (the best of which is George Miller’s version of the immortal “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”). Spielberg’s bit should have been the movie’s highlight, instead it’s the low point.

34. “The BFG” (2016)


It’s hard to feel bad for Disney but you’ve got to at least appreciate the fact that they entered into a lengthy, expensive agreement to distribute DreamWorks movies for the chance to finally (finally!) release a Disney-branded film directed by Steven Spielberg. And this is the movie he ultimately chose to do. Loud and unfunny, this bustling adaptation of the Roald Dahl story (the last script by his “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison) is utterly pointless and instantly forgettable. Spielberg had flirted with the project since the early 1990s and initially earmarked Robin Williams as a potential lead; ultimately he went with his “Bridge of Spies” breakout Mark Rylance, transformed into a towering, dream-catching giant by the geniuses at Wētā FX. Everything feels like an odd mishmash of conflicting tones and styles, from the harshness of Janusz Kaminski’s typically overwrought cinematography in what was meant to be, at least in part, a warm-and-fuzzy bedtime story, to the odd script details like the Queen’s farting, flying corgis. Spielberg has never missed the mark as broadly as he did with “The BFG.”     

33. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

They should have left well enough alone. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” ended perfectly – with our heroes literally riding off into the sunset. But George Lucas began tinkering with an idea that would move Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) into the 1950s with a plot ripped out of a drive-in sci-fi movie. Lucas pitched Ford on the idea during the shooting of Ford’s episode of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” The idea initially involved Roswell but later became a crystal skull in South America. And the final film does feel like a movie where ideas are competing with one another (and against each other) – Lucas’ desire to have a 1950s sci-fi homage nestled amongst the classic adventure of the series feels incongruous, as does the series swapping out Nazis (a staple of an earlier, superior screenplay by Frank Darabont) for Russians, led by a psychic Cate Blanchett whose supernatural powers don’t actually enhance her character or move the plot forward in any meaningful way.

From Shia LeBeouf channeling Brando to a scene with characters swinging on ropes like (and with) monkeys to Kaminski’s frigid look replacing the warm tones of Douglas Slocombe’s soft glow from the earlier films, none of it works and it only serves to remind you of earlier, better movies. It’s telling that Spielberg won’t be returning for the fifth and final film, even though Lucas had nothing to do with the new entry. He’d had enough. By the end of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the feeling was mutual.

32. “Hook” (1991)

TriStar Pictures

Weirdly, “Hook” feels like one of the most important films in Spielberg’s career while still being one of the lousiest. Since the early 1980s, Spielberg had been attempting to do a live-action “Peter Pan” story; first at Disney and then with Paramount (where Dustin Hoffman was first attached as Captain Hook). When Spielberg dropped out, another director stepped in as the script went from a straight retelling to something more conceptual (What if Peter Pan grew up?) but when the new director clashed with Hoffman and Robin Williams, Spielberg returned. Maybe he should have stayed away. Bloated and unfocused, it is Spielberg attempting to embrace the spirit of his youth while also being a husband and father in his mid-40s. Like Robin Williams, he’s desperately trying to return to Neverland but finding that he just doesn’t have it anymore.

A famously contentious set, the budget ballooned and remained, creatively, in a state of flux until it opened in theaters to a lackluster critical and commercial response. (Keep in mind it was supposed to be a musical and John Williams wrote eight original songs with lyricist Leslie Bricusse.) There are some “Hook” apologists in our midst these days; drown them out. Besides an absolutely killer teaser trailer, it’s a dud.

31. “The Sugarland Express” (1974)

The Sugarland Express

Spielberg’s first theatrical feature is a law-breakin’-lovers-on-the-run yarn that had the misfortune of coming out the year after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece “Badlands.” It’s not that “The Sugarland Express” is bad, necessarily, it just lacks some of the magic that was evident in Spielberg’s TV movie “Duel” and would become a staple in his later work. Goldie Hawn plays a lovelorn yokel whose child was revoked by the state; William Atherton is her deadbeat husband who she breaks out of jail even though he’s about to be released. Together they take a young patrolman (Michael Sacks) hostage. While the story is based on a true crime, it’s easy to read into the patrolman as being the Spielberg surrogate, as he is constantly trying to moderate the bickering of the young couple (clearly based on Spielberg’s parents) – like Spielberg, Sacks was only 26 years old.

Still, the script (co-written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who would remain in Spielberg’s orbit) meanders a little too much, which gives Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (coming off of “Deliverance” and “The Long Goodbye”) plenty of time to crash cars instead of focus on the characters. This film was enough to convince producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown that Spielberg could handle some book adaptation called “Jaws.”

30. “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997)

The Lost World

“The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” based on the second best-selling, dinosaur-filled novel by Michael Crichton, is an entirely different vibe. With the actual park gone, the action takes place on Site B, a second island where (we quickly learn) they made the dinosaurs before bringing them to the park (Funny, what was that whole scene with Dr. Wu in the first movie?). Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) returns to make sure his girlfriend (Julianne Moore) isn’t eaten; Vince Vaughn plays an eco-terrorist dispatched to stop some corporate goons who want the remaining dinosaurs for profit. Spielberg still knows how to stage a terrific set piece, like the attack of a little girl in the cold open or the grand finale that sees a T. Rex stomping through the streets of San Diego. But he doesn’t seem particularly engaged and for much of the movie, watching dinosaurs run through the forest doesn’t inspire the mixture of awe and terror that made the original so special.

“Lost World” is arguably Spielberg’s ugliest, most mean-spirited movie since “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” but without that movie’s snappy cleverness, with Kaminski’s murky cinematography a stark contrast to Dean Cundey’s more lush photography for the original film. Intermittent silliness (let’s not get into the gymnast-versus-raptor fight) only adds to the feeling of distance between the audience and the auteur. This one has its defenders but it’s hard to join the cause.

29. “The Terminal” (2004)

The Terminal

Based, in part, on the true story of a man from Brussels who lived in a Paris airport (he sadly recently passed away), “The Terminal” stars Tom Hanks as a visitor to America from a fictional country that, while he is passing through immigration, ceases to exist. This leaves him stuck in the airport, eating packets of ketchup, running afoul of a tightly wound administration (Stanley Tucci) and falling in love with Catherine Zeta-Jones’ flirty flight attendant. It really doesn’t add up to much, despite having a wonderful supporting cast that includes Diego Luna, Chi McBride and a baby-faced Zoe Saldaña. This is partially because at 118 minutes it overstays its welcome and partially because what should have been an intimate little comedy necessitated the construction of an entire airport terminal. Also, the resolution of why Hanks is in America totally fizzles. If you’ve never seen “The Terminal,” it’s worth it for Spielberg completists, but is otherwise unremarkable (although it was sort of fun to watch Hanks dip back into goofball “Money Pit” territory after years of being Hollywood’s earnest leading man). This movie made $220 million worldwide.

28. “War Horse” (2011)

War Horse

“War Horse,” on paper, seems like a slam dunk. An adaptation of both British author Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel and a 2007 stage adaptation that played both the West End and Broadway, it stars Jeremy Irvine as a British kid whose beloved horse is drafted into World War I and goes through a series of harrowing adventures before the two are reunited. Nobody does quasi-magical friendships between human and inhuman characters better than Spielberg, but much of “War Horse” is a slog; the wartime setting seems to necessitate a harsher rating but the filmmaker keeps aiming at something more family-friendly (this is exemplified by a brutal killing being obscured by a turning windmill). There are some virtuoso set pieces for sure and it’s a kick to watch all the great British character actors pop up for brief performances (Tom Hiddelston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and Emily Watson all appear), but the screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall makes it hard to get emotionally involved.

27. “West Side Story” (2021)

20th Century

“West Side Story,” quietly released at the end of 2021, racked up seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and secured a single win (for Ariana DeBose’s amazing supporting performance), and yet was seen as something of a disappointment. And at the end of the day it’s easy to get swept up in this new version of the story, written by Tony Kushner but maintaining the original song and score of the stage show, particularly with the elaborately staged musical numbers. The strides the new script makes, in terms of representation (Maria is actually played by Rachel Zegler, a young woman of color, and there is a trans character) and embroidery (Rita Moreno’s character is great) is admirable. But some of the casting is unfortunate (Ansel Elgort was a lousy choice even before the sexual assault allegations) and the movie, for all of its razzle-dazzle, cannot escape a damnable sense of Déjà vu. At the very least Spielberg was able to stage a full-throated musical, something you can sense he’s wanted to do for a very, very long time (look no further than the opening sequence of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”). Whether or not his “West Side Story” is worth a standing ovation depends on the viewer.

26. “Amistad” (1997)


Just like in 1993, when Spielberg released both “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” in 1997 Spielberg paired “The Lost World” with a far more serious project – “Amistad,” the story of a slave uprising and the legal fallout that followed. The slave uprising sequence is a typical Spielberg tour-de-force moment – it happens in the rain, with crescendos of lighting coinciding with bursts of spectacular violence. Unfortunately, most of the movie concerns the legal battle that followed the uprising, which is both hard to follow and unfortunately puts the movie into the category of a “white savior” story, with Matthew McConaughey becoming the de-facto hero, a plucky lawyer who works for the accused slaves. As a courtroom drama, it lacks oomph. But a strong cast (Anthony Hopkins was nominated for an Oscar for his turn as John Quincy Adams) and handsome technical merits (Ruth Carter’s costumes are all knockouts, obviously) make it worth watching if you’ve never seen or are attempting to complete your Spielbergian puzzle.

25. “Ready Player One” (2018)

ready player one
Warner Bros.

“Ready Player One” was always a bizarre choice for Spielberg since the source material, borderline fan fiction written by Austin nerd Ernie Cline, was so obviously indebted to Spielberg’s filmography and, as an artist, Spielberg is hardly ever self-referential. (He seems to have learned from the divisive opening of “1941.”) And, sure enough, when he signed onto the project – a multiyear affair that would see Industrial Light & Magic essentially create an animated feature within a live-action one – he vowed to stay away from his own catalog. Of course, winks and nods were still present (the DeLorean from the Spielberg-produced “Back to the Future” is a key vehicle and “Gremlins” can be seen scampering across the battlefield), but Spielberg largely pushed himself to ingest other pop culture ephemera. When that works, like during a prolonged chase sequence set in Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel or an opening car chase that might have been the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in a theater, it’s absolutely thrilling, transporting audiences to a different time and place and proving that Spielberg’s blockbuster bona-fides and storytelling instincts are as keen as ever. When “Ready Player One” stumbles, as it does occasionally during the “real world” segments, it’s a depressing reminder that Spielberg might want to stick to the prestige pictures of late.   

24. “Empire of the Sun” (1987)

Empire of the Sun
Warner Bros.

You’ll be surprised to realize that, even as a little kid, Christian Bale was a very good actor. In “Empire of the Sun,” Bale plays a young boy who is separated from his parents in British-occupied Shanghai during World War II and forced to survive in a Japanese internment camp. Perhaps the most famous sequence is the one above, when young Jamie and his parents are actually separated by the invading Japanese forces. It’s a sequence that only Spielberg could have filmed, with hundreds of extras and absolute visual and emotional clarity – you know exactly what is going on, how he is getting dislocated and the overwhelming amount of energy that it will take to reunite them. And that’s one scene. Quietly powerful (even when dramatizing the atomic bomb detonating at Nagasaki) and easily one of Spielberg’s most underrated efforts, it sometimes self-consciously feels like the director is trying to separate himself from his more jolly works of the same period (Allen Daviau shot the movie in a taller aspect ratio, discarding the more romantic, slightly warped anamorphic lenses he often favors). But the script is so strong (Tom Stoppard adapted J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel) and the emotions so startlingly real, it’s hard to be anything but engrossed.

23. “Bridge of Spies” (2015)

Bridge of Spies

Spielberg enters the Cold War with “Bridge of Spies,” the true story of a prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States that happened in the late 1950s, when the tension between the two countries was at its most combustible. Tom Hanks, a lovable Spielberg favorite (as always), plays the attorney who represented Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a convicted Russian spy who is now being forced into helping organize the swap. Spielberg’s virtuosity is on full display (the opening of the movie is a lengthy, wordless chase sequence through an immaculately recreated New York City) and it’s fun to watch him engage in some of the same real-world spy theatrics that made “Munich” so powerful.

The screenplay, written initially by Matt Chapman and punched up by the Coen Brothers, gives the characters commendable depth while maintaining the underlying thriller-y nature of the story, and “Bridge of Spies” is perhaps most notable for being the first team-up between Rylance and Spielberg (they would re-team for “The BFG” and “Ready Player One”) and for being the first movie since 1985’s “The Color Purple” to be scored by someone other than John Williams (Thomas Newman does great, typically understated work). Not the flashiest Spielberg joint, although it was still nominated for Best Picture (and Rylance won) and is a work of undeniable power.

22. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm

What’s so funny about “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is that the path to the movie took a typically circuitous route — wholly unrelated drafts were completed by Chris Columbus and Menno Meyjes, but the story that they wound up with (credited to Jeffrey Boam but owing a huge debt to an uncredited rewrite by Tom Stoppard) amounts to little more than “Shut up and play the hits.” And you know what? That’s okay. It was Spielberg’s idea to focus the story on a father/son tale with Indiana Jones (a returning Harrison Ford) dealing with the disappearance of his father (Sean Connery, in a casting stroke of genius) while searching for the same mysterious artifact.

Most of the plot stuff is incidental and carried over from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (scheming Nazis, double-crosses, chases through the desert) with the emotional center of a strained relationship between father and son taking center stage, particularly in the movie’s third act, which has some spectacular elements but features a much quieter, more contained climax than audiences were probably expecting. (Also, the prologue sequence with River Phoenix as young Indy is an all-timer.) Even a rerun is capable of being entertaining and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is certainly that, with the smart script, crackerjack cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (it was his last film) and committed performances papering over any plot irregularities or feelings of been-there/done-that.

21. “Always” (1989)


“Always” is an interesting movie and certainly one the least heralded of Spielberg’s career. Ostensibly a remake of 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe,” Spielberg moved the action away from World War II and instead chose to focus on Colorado firefighters. Richard Dreyfuss plays a hotshot pilot who dies in duty and is forced to both train a younger pilot and watch that pilot fall in love with his wife (played by Holly Hunter). The aerial sequences are thrilling (they were worked on by Industrial Light and Magic) but the most gripping sequences are the ones in which Dreyfuss’ character is visited by an otherworldly being called “Hap” (played by Audrey Hepburn). Gently surreal and deeply touching, it’s these interludes that give “Always” its power.

Released at the very end of the 1980s, the decade that saw Spielberg go from a filmmaker to a mogul, there is something transitionary about the movie – it’s got a lot on its mind but is still full of the aw-shucks wonder that made him a household name. (In many respects, “Always” feels like an overlong episode of his “Amazing Stories” TV series.) After shooting the third “Indiana Jones” and “Always” back-to-back, he would take time off and return with “Hook,” a movie about him grappling with his place in the world. “Always” is a much better and more aggressively overlooked film. And one more ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.

20. “The Color Purple” (1985)

The Color Purple
Warner Bros.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning 1982 novel and advertised as “an American story for the whole world,” “The Color Purple” was Spielberg’s first attempt at a “serious” movie. And while he strove for authenticity, casting several unknown actors (including Whoopi Goldberg) and employing Walker to supervise the script (ultimately written by Menno Meyjes) and give notes on the actors’ accents, some accused the director of softening the material and emphasizing sentimentality over realism. (Spielberg later admitted that he regretted downplaying the lesbian relationship between two characters.)

The story of a young female named Celie (Goldberg) in early 20th century America, it was clearly more mature than the more commercial films he’d done up until that point, with “The Color Purple” dealing with heavy issues like incest, rape and poverty. And he mostly succeeded; while there were some protests against the film, it was nominated for 11 Oscars and Spielberg won a Directors Guild of America award for his efforts. While not as highly regarded as something like “Schindler’s List,” without “The Color Purple,” those later, more serious features wouldn’t have been possible. A stepping stone movie, for sure, but one that’s still incredibly moving.

19. “The Post” (2017)

The Post
20th Century

“The Post” rules. Quickly produced and released while Spielberg was working on the arduous post-production on “Ready Player One” and right after “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” fell apart, you can feel that messy immediacy in every frame. Few recent Spielberg movies have felt this wonderfully alive. Ostensibly the story of the Washington Post’s efforts to publish The Pentagon Paper, it’s also (very clearly) about America in 2017, a time when journalism was under assault and the government was happy to oppress those searching for truth. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep lead an all-star cast that also includes Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts and David Cross, filling out the bustling, newspaper world. In many ways “The Post” feels like a companion piece to that other paranoid Washington Post journalism drama “All the President’s Men.” This one is less suspenseful but deeply committed to the same ideals. While rightfully nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, there really should be more discussion around “The Post.”

18. “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011)

Paramount Pictures

Spielberg’s first (and so far only) animated feature is an ambitious adaptation of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s “The Adventures of Tintin.” But instead of a more traditional animated feature, Spielberg went the motion capture route, “filming” the movie with actors and sets before having the animation actualized by the geniuses at Peter Jackson’s Wētā FX. And it really is a stunning-looking film, much more expressive and fun than anything Spielberg’s old buddy Robert Zemeckis did during his time in the motion capture trenches.

“The Adventures of Tintin” has a wonderful look, just shy of photo-real and exaggerated enough to evoke Hergé’s iconic original artwork. Not all of “Tintin” works; the find-the-ancient-treasure script by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish is sometimes too calamitous (and clever) for its own good and the third act crane fight is deadening overkill. But when “The Adventures of Tintin” is really cooking, it’s enough to remind you (warmly) of Spielberg’s blockbuster heyday. In particular there’s a sequence in Morocco that culminates in a chase sequence that plays out over a single, unbroken take – it’s the classic “Spielberg oner” unmoored by the limitations of physics or reality. It’s absolutely exhilarating. When initially conceived, Jackson was meant to direct a sequel film with Spielberg returning for the third. While the filmmakers occasionally mention subsequent films, it feels unlikely at this point. Although, at the very least, the magic of animation means that you don’t have to worry about any of the actors (among them: Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig and Andy Serkis) actually aging.

17. “Lincoln” (2012)


One of his personal passion projects, Spielberg had held the rights to the Doris Kearns Goodwin book since 2001 and several earlier attempts had been made at adapting the material by playwrights John Logan and, later, Paul Webb. Spielberg loosely slotted Liam Neeson into the title role. Eventually Tony Kushner took on the assignment, first turning in a 500-page script that focused on four months of the President’s life, eventually whittling it down to focus on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Kushner’s script is scrappy, bringing history to life on an almost molecular level. But the movie’s design is odd and while it is meant to show how deeply human Lincoln was, with his backchannel dealings and deft maneuvering, the structure oftentimes leaves an emotional distance between the audience and the subject. (Kaminski’s truly unhinged cinematography is a gauzy nightmare, with rain-slicked battlefields twinkling at night and every window blown out like a visiting spaceship is just outside.)

Daniel-Day Lewis is obviously incredible in the Oscar-winning role as Lincoln, even if his process of inhabiting the role was deeply bizarre (he would send Sally Field text messages as Lincoln). Still, even if you aren’t wholly engrossed it’s fun to see the character actors who pop up in minuscule roles wearing period-appropriate mustaches and weird hats (Tommy Lee Jones! James Spader! Adam Driver!) “Lincoln” was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and was rapturously reviewed by critics. It’s a shame that this was the lone Day-Lewis/Spielberg collaboration. Can you imagine what else they could have accomplished together?

16. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984)

ke huy quan harrison ford indiana jones and the temple of doom

Let’s just get this out of the way first: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” does not contain the most culturally sensitive depictions of native cultures. In fact, it’s oftentimes openly offensive, courting the kind of tired tropes that were, surprisingly, still persistent in the 1980s. That said, the first follow-up to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and the first to have the character’s name in the title) is an absolute triumph, a darkly-hued jewel that would probably be more openly celebrated if it weren’t for all that gross other stuff. This entry sees the archeologist adventurer (played, with more outward menace, by Harrison Ford) going up against a gang of child-kidnapping, heart-ripping cultists in rural India. Beginning with a musical number that rivals anything in “West Side Story,” the movie is full of inventive set pieces (many borrowed from earlier drafts of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and a ghoulish sensibility informed by the fact that both Spielberg and George Lucas were going through contentious divorces as the time (Spielberg would go on to marry the movie’s star, Kate Capshaw).

In fact, the mean-spirited “Temple of Doom” (actually a prequel!) was so violent and upsetting that it led to the MPAA creating a new rating (PG-13) a few months after its release. If you’re on its particular, blood-streaked wavelength, the movie is a delight (Roger Ebert called it a “cheerfully exciting, bizarre, goofy, romantic adventure movie”).

15. “1941” (1979)


What a movie. “1941” is the closest thing Spielberg has made to a cult favorite – a loud, boisterous comedy that only Spielberg could have mounted and one that, while financially successful, found reappraisal thanks to, of all things, a longer cut of the movie airing on a nascent Disney Channel. (Yes, seriously.) Centered around the very real Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 (an event that many at the time believed was actually an invasion by UFOs), which occurred just six days after Pearl Harbor, “1942” takes a truly singular approach. The cast is full of world-class actors, both comedic and otherwise (what other movie features Dan Aykroyd, Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, Christopher Lee, Warren Oates and John Belushi?), doing the most acting they’ve ever done, with a scatterbrained, Mad Magazine approach to the humor (it opens with a recreation of the opening of “Jaws,” only this time with a German submarine instead of a shark)  that borders on the operatic and giant aerial action sequences supervised, as always, by Industrial Light and Magic. It’s a lot of movie.

Watching it again today makes you appreciate (or not) just how tonally out of sync it was not just with movies of today but with movies period. The screenplay, written by “Back to the Future” masterminds Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (with help from, of all people, John Milius), is zippy and fun. But it’s not to everyone’s tastes. The director’s cut is the preferred version but tacks on another 30 minutes of nonstop insanity. It’s for real heads only.

14. “The Fabelmans” (2022)


Spielberg’s latest is the movie he’d been waiting 40 years to make, a deeply personal, autobiographical journey that is, outwardly, about how his love of movies was cultivated and refined but is really about an even more perilous quest to understand who he is (as an artist, as a person) and where he came from. “The Fabelmans” is full of world-class filmmaking, obviously, and Spielberg was right to bring in Tony Kushner to be his co-screenwriter to give the story dramatic form and to shape its contours. The first half-hour or so is a little wobbly but the movie really hits its stride when the teenage version of Spielberg (played by the amazing Gabriel LaBelle) takes center stage. With this version of the character, the movie finds its center – watch as he discovers his mother’s infidelity, falls in love in high school and becomes the “movie kid” of his class and eventually has a fateful interaction with John Ford (played by David Lynch).

What’s fun, too, is in Spielberg’s retelling of his own story he has littered it with references and touchstones to his other work (not that it only succeeds if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of his filmography, but it does help). Considering Spielberg has already shifted to a much more openly commercial project (a remake of sorts of the Steve McQueen thriller “Bullitt”), he might have been wounded by the commercial indifference that met “The Fabelmans.” Or maybe, after exorcizing those demons, he just wants to have a little fun.

13. “War of the Worlds” (2005)

Paramount Pictures

The second of Spielberg’s two team-ups with the world’s biggest movie star Tom Cruise is the lesser film, but only slightly. “War of the Worlds” takes the original H.G. Wells story and recontextualizes it for a post-9/11 audience (something he would be working through in his other 2005 classic “Munich”); instead of coming from space, the Martians emerge from the ground, vaporizing civilians into the same greyish muck that we saw everywhere after the towers fell. Cruise, in a finely calibrated and oddly underrated performance, plays a bad dad in suburban New England who has to deal with the end of the world alongside the stress of having custody of his children (does it ever end?) Spielberg said that part of his inspiration to do “War of the Worlds” was that he’d done enough cuddly alien stories; he was ready to make a scary alien story. And that he did.

This movie is absolutely terrifying, with Spielberg finding horror as much in the alien visitors (particularly in a creepy scene where we see them out of their tripods and stalking around a destroyed house) as in the ways that humanity breaks down following their arrival. (Although this one could have benefitted from an R-rating.) Full of unforgettable set pieces (the tripods’ attack on a ferry being one of the best), occasional throwbacks to Paramount’s 1953 film by George Pal (he just couldn’t help it!) and some of ILM’s most chilling visual effects, “War of the Worlds” is another miraculous Spielberg blockbuster and proof that, as Carly Simon once sang, nobody does it better.

12. “Minority Report” (2002)

minority report tom cruise
20th Century Fox

In some ways “Minority Report” felt like Spielberg accepting a call-to-arms. Could he still make the kind of big, brainy extravaganzas that he used to make in his youth? And could he do it while servicing one of the biggest movie stars on the planet? The answer to all questions, with “Minority Report,” was an unequivocal yes. The opening sequence, where Cruise’s cop character tries to reconstruct the events of a murder that hasn’t happened yet in an attempt to stop the crime before its begun, is visually sophisticated and technologically savvy. It also feels brash and new, like something you’d see in a David Fincher movie. The film’s plot, based on a Phillip K. Dick story and with a screenplay credited to Jon Cohen and Scott Frank, is fairly complicated, concerning a future where murder is outlawed because some freaky mutants can see it happening first. Cruise has to kidnap one of the mutants to clear his name and find out who is framing him, so he goes on a Hitchcockian wrong man odyssey across a gleaming, futuristic cityscape. (Colin Farrell is the Department of Justice goon who is skeptical of the program an then tasked with bringing Cruise in.)

More darkly comic and outright gruesome than some of Spielberg’s other, more mainstream fare (see: that whole section with Peter Stormare), “Minority Report” is a rollicking, thought-provoking thriller that would have been even more prickly had Spielberg stuck with the original ending: a text card that read that the following year, there were a huge number of murders in Washington D.C. Was Cruise’s quest worth it? An even more provocative reading has come up in recent years that most of the third act (after Cruise is captured and put in Tim Blake Nelson’s creepy techno catacomb) is actually just Cruise dreaming after being imprisoned for the rest of his life. In a way, this kind of big-idea sci-fi filmmaking would set the stage for the emergence of someone like Christopher Nolan.

11. “Duel” (1971)


“Duel” began life as an “ABC Movie of the Week,” building on the success Spielberg had directing episodes of “Columbo” and “Night Gallery.” But the movie was so good that an expanded version, running 16 minutes longer than the TV version, was released theatrically in international markets. That’s why it’s on this list! (Also the theatrical cut is basically the only one you can see anymore.) The premise of “Duel” is simple and ruthlessly efficient, based on a short story and subsequent screenplay by the legendary Richard Matheson. Basically Dennis Weaver is a salesman driving on a business trip when he is stalked by a menacing, smoke-belching big rig truck. The driver of the eighteen-wheeler is never seen, which causes tension both inside the car and outside (there’s a great moment when Weaver is stopped for a meal and trying to figure out which of the men inside the diner is the driver of the truck). Relentless and terrifying, Spielberg’s talent is apparent from the very beginning, with an elaborate POV sequence that showed his route from the driveway to the highway. And it just gets better from there. It was Spielberg’s work on “Duel” that got him the gig to make “Jaws” – he felt that the truck and the shark were both engines of unseen malevolence. And he was right.

10. “Munich” (2005)


Arguably the most important movie of the last 20 years of Spielberg’s career, mostly because it established the director’s fruitful relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner. But “Munich” is also incredibly important because it showed that Spielberg was capable of really adult filmmaking – it’s awash in bloody violence, explicit nudity and thorny thematic subject matter (which continues to its very final shot, which lingers over the twin towers of the World Trade Center). It’s one of his rawest, most uncompromising movies. What makes “Munich” even more impressive is that it could have been much simpler, but Spielberg chose to make it an altogether messier, more provocative movie.

Based on George Jonas’ 1984 book “Vengeance” about Operation Wrath of God, an Israeli secret operation meant to strike back at the terrorists responsible for the 1974 Munich Olympics massacre by Palestinian organization Black September. (Some of the movie’s most incredibly staged sequences are when Spielberg re-creates the hostage situation, sometimes intercutting the action with actual news footage of the event.) A more straightforward movie could have been made from the actual operation and Spielberg does have fun with the men-on-a-mission mechanics of the narrative (among them men: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds and Mathieu Kassovitz), but Spielberg and Kushner are constantly throwing in complications – practical (as when a bomb doesn’t properly detonate), spiritual and philosophical – to the point that what began as a righteous mission becomes muddier and muddier. This is exemplified by a divisive sex scene when Bana is making love to his wife but still haunted by the tragedy of the Olympics massacre and all the evil that followed. For one of the few times in his career, Spielberg wasn’t trying to seduce the audience with wonder and spectacle; this time he was trying to shake that audience.

9. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)

DreamWorks Pictures

“Saving Private Ryan” has been lauded by some as the greatest World War II ever made, a claim that stretches credibility even compared to that other World War II movie of 1998, Terrence Malick’s lyrical and haunting “The Thin Red Line.” And, under close scrutiny, Spielberg’s Oscar-winning drama doesn’t totally hold up – the modern-day bookends are borrowed from “Schindler’s List” and, honestly, aren’t as effective; the movie is stuffed full of war movie cliches; and the 169-minute long runtime feels unnecessarily lengthy and oftentimes downright baggy, especially in its second act. But the raw power of the opening sequence, set on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion, is so staggering that the rest of the movie could have been Tom Hanks playing cards and it still would have probably cracked Spielberg’s top 10. That sequence is one of the most visceral ever committed to film and the fact that the film, even with that scene, still managed to only be rated-R is a testament to Spielberg’s standing in the business and the seriousness with which he approached the subject matter.

There are moments that almost reach the heights of that sequence, in particular the climax (which feels underrated but is understandably in the shadow of the opening) and there are some finely calibrated performances (particularly Hanks) that give shape and form to some of the movie’s more overtly saccharine tendencies. It’s the kind of big, open-hearted, old-fashioned epic that only Steven Spielberg could pull off. His earnestness is a feature, not a bug.   

8. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001)

Warner Bros./DreamWorks/Paramount

Originally conceived by Stanley Kubrick, who began working on an adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” in the early 1970s, Spielberg took over the project after Kubrick died, tragically, in 1999. The resulting film is an odd mixture of the two filmmakers’ sensibilities and an insane exercise in processing trauma and grief (Spielberg’s own), in the form of a $100 million sci-fi spectacle. Occasionally the two worldviews, of Spielberg the sentimentalist and Kubrick the cynic, clash loudly but for the most part, they weave in and out of each other, creating a movie that is probably more interesting if only one of them had worked on it. Haley Joel Osment plays an android boy looking for his place in the world after his human family abandons him; he meets up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sex-bot who is framed for murder and together with his gruff teddy bear, go on an unbelievable odyssey to the end of the world.

Melancholy and mournful, it was unlike what anyone was expecting – this isn’t the cuddly story of interspecies friendship like “E.T.” nor is it as harsh and unforgiving as something like “A Clockwork Orange.” “A.I.” is very much its own thing – odd, gorgeously rendered (thanks to a killer collaboration, once again, by Stan Winston and Industrial Light & Magic) and ahead of its time. The movie’s ending, where sentient androids from the far-flung future visit Osment’s character, was initially viewed as too cheery and optimistic. Spielberg claimed it was always a part of Kubrick’s vision. The truth, like the rest of “A.I.,” probably rests somewhere in the middle. 

7. “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)


“Catch Me If You Can” had been a high-profile project in development at Spielberg’s DreamWorks. When a number of triple-A filmmakers came and went (including Cameron Crowe, Gore Verbinski and David Fincher), Spielberg took the “well, I’ll do it myself” approach and signed on to direct. And it’s hard to think of anybody giving the movie the same mixture of dazzling capers and deep emotion, proving that he could still tap into those raw-nerve emotions of being a child of divorce all of these years later. Leonard DiCaprio plays a real-life rascal who conned his way through much of his adult life, impersonating airplane pilots and doctors, whose path of destruction was probably a lot less charming than DiCaprio and Spielberg portray.

Tom Hanks is the dogged lawman on his trail, and while all of DiCaprio’s various grifts are dramatized vibrantly, with Spielberg’s swirling camera and John Williams’ jazzy score, the real movie lies in the connection between DiCaprio and Hanks, two broken characters who somehow find wholeness in each other. There’s a deep sadness at the core of the otherwise lively and fun “Catch Me If You Can” which makes it infinitely more profound than it would have been. While the movie was a box office success, it only secured two Oscar nominations – for Williams and Christopher Walken for Best Supporting Actor. It should have been nominated for much more (including Best Picture) and continues to resonate today. A delight.

6. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

Universal Pictures

One of the most popular films of all time, it’s also one of the most artistically accomplished. “E.T.” is a tender coming-of-age story about a young boy (Henry Thomas) who befriends a small space alien who has been abandoned near his quaint suburban home. The young boy, like Spielberg, is a child of divorce and you can feel the authenticity of the boy’s story, even as the more overtly science-fiction shenanigans (flying bicycles, overbearing government authorities and the like) star to takeover. It’s that level of emotional realism and the connection between the boy and the alien (engineered by Carlo Rambaldi, re-teaming with Spielberg after “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), more than any visual effect, that made “E.T.” soar. (Although, it’s true, John Williams’ peerless score does embellish and amplify what is already there.) It’s telling that the movie is so perfect, in fact, that after Spielberg released an anniversary edition with some new scenes and enhanced visual effects (including a computer-animated E.T. hopping through the forest, supplied by the original effects company Industrial Light & Magic) that Spielberg openly denounced the new version and reinstated the classic “E.T.” You can’t mess with a classic.

5. “Schindler’s List” (1993)

Schindler's List
Universal Pictures

Who knew Spielberg had it in him? The same year that he unleashed the popcorn juggernaut “Jurassic Park,” he also opened “Schindler’s List,” a haunting tale of the Holocaust based on Thomas Keneally’s historical novel “Schindler’s Ark.” Captured in stark black-and-white by Janusz Kaminski (this is their first – and so far best – collaboration), the movie almost looks like a documentary. And it feels that way too. Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi party who found a way to save 1,200 Jews from extermination during World War II. The movie’s images are haunting but the sentiment is too – both of extreme sorrow and sadness but also desperation. Couldn’t he have done more?

Spielberg’s account of the period is unflinching and harrowing but he still manages to deploy flourishes that only he could have achieved – the little girl’s red coat that allows you to identify her later in the pile of bodies; the flickering of candles as metaphor for hope (both achieved by Industrial Light & Magic, the same company that brought the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” to life). “Schindler’s List” was the movie that finally won Spielberg his Best Director Academy Award, along with another statue for Best Picture and several more (including one for Steve Zaillian’s note-perfect script). It’s a tough movie to frequently revisit but when you do it’s hard not to get swept up again.  

4. “Jurassic Park” (1993)

Universal Pictures

Sure, it was a technological breakthrough and proof that computer-generated imagery would revolutionize the way we watch and make movies, but at its heart “Jurassic Park” is first and foremost a triumph of imaginative entertainment. Based on the bestselling novel by Michael Crichton (who wrote an early draft of the screenplay), “Jurassic Park” concerns a group of scientists and engineers (and two little kids) who are tasked with beta-testing a theme park full of genetically engineered dinosaurs. Of course, the dinosaurs get loose and all hell breaks loose. When the movie was being optioned, every studio had their own director ready to go (Tim Burton and James Cameron were among those vying for it), but it’s hard to imagine anybody but Spielberg tackling the material. Not only does the film feature Spielberg’s patented mixture of terror and awe, sometimes in the same sequence (like the breathlessly staged T. rex attack), but at its heart are a pair of kids whose parents’ impending divorce leaves them with something more to prove.

While the endless sequels and spinoffs have watered down the franchise, the primal power of the original “Jurassic Park” remains. Watching that movie in the theater was an exhilarating experience and you could feel the earth shifting as you watched it; there had never been anything like it before and the advances made within would disrupt everything. Even now, people are still trying to repeat the aw-shucks thrill of “Jurassic Park.” And they still haven’t come anywhere near it.

3. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm

The story goes that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were sitting on a beach right after “Star Wars” had opened. Lucas didn’t want to know about the box office. He just wanted to get away with his friend. While on the sand Spielberg expressed sadness that he wasn’t going to get to make a James Bond movie. Lucas told him that he had an idea that was even better than 007. The result was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Styled after old-fashioned serials of the late 1930s and early 1940s in which the hero would get into a series of hair-raising cliffhangers, “Raiders” finds Lucas’ old pal Harrison Ford stepping into the role of Indiana Jones, a professor by day and treasure hunter by night, who is tasked by the American government to retrieve an artifact before it falls into the hands of the Nazis. It’s such an ingenious premise it’s hard to believe nobody thought of it before, and it was brought to life beautifully by Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay (based on an original proposal by Phillip Kaufman), which saw Jones traveling from the heart of the jungle to the arid desert of the Middle East on a hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.

Perhaps the single greatest action-adventure film of all time, full of set pieces and sequences that boggle the mind and leave your jaw on the floor, it was Spielberg that understood that Jones couldn’t just be a lantern-jawed superhero. His Indiana Jones has a messy – in a way that would never fly today – relationship with his girl Marion (an adorable Karen Allen) and he screws up as much as he succeeds. It’s this fallibility that makes it even easier to root for him as he tumbles, bumbles and whips his way to saving the world from an occult evil. What a ride.

2. “Jaws” (1975)


Can you believe that “Jaws” was only Spielberg’s second theatrical feature as a director? This might have been unwise, at least from a practical standpoint, as the production of “Jaws” was notoriously behind-schedule and ran into costly overruns due (largely to the decision to shoot on the open ocean) and technological set-backs (obscuring the shark for most of the movie was for necessity as much as it was for artistry). It was supposed to take 55 days to shoot and wound up taking 159 with a script was never finished and always in flux (Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the essential chronicle of the making of the film “The Jaws Log,” was responsible for most of the final draft). And all of that hardship and adversity resulted in one of the best, most entertaining movies ever. Helpfully establishing the idea of a “summer movie,” Spielberg’s creature feature is smart, scary and full of heart. He cast the movie perfectly, with Roy Scheider as the big city cop who’s afraid of water Brody, Richard Dreyfuss as the nerdy shark specialist Hooper and Robert Shaw as the hardened fisherman Quint. Each performer had their own style of acting and each performance very much has its own tempo, but together they created a symphony.

Spielberg wisely reshaped Peter Benchley’s original novel, jettisoning silly subplots about Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) and mobsters, and adding unforgettable flourishes like Quint’s history with sharks (largely written, depending on who you believe, by John Milius) and the moment where Brody is making eye contact with his young son. These are the moments that stick with you and the kind of scenes that only Spielberg would have added. Already a master of tone, Spielberg shifts from the more straightforward horror of the first half of the movie to a high-seas adventure in the second half, never missing a beat and never making something that feels disconnected. (John Williams’ score helps bridge that gap too, with the theme for the shark endlessly replicated and parodied in the years since.) “Jaws” is an incredible technical feat but it’s also a triumph of raw emotion. How else could he scare an entire generation from ever going into the ocean?

1. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbia Pictures

It feels like we take “Close Encounter of the Third Kind’s” genius for granted. Or maybe it’s that it’s been overshadowed by more openly crowd-pleasing wonders like “E.T.” or “Jurassic Park.” But that doesn’t take anything away from the film, which still feels like Spielberg’s most visually gorgeous, most psychologically complex and most structurally adventurous blockbuster. The movie’s storyline runs on parallel tracks – one follows blue collar everyman Roy (Richard Dreyfuss), who becomes obsessed with the aerial phenomenon he sees in the sky, at the cost of his career and family; the other traces the efforts of a nebbish UFO researcher (played by Francois Truffaut) to investigate the same otherworldly visitations. Their storylines finally collide at Devil’s Tower, a geographic formation where the alien visitors are set to make contact with humankind. If that sounds like a lot, it is, particularly in the early sequences which oscillate between humdrum suburban strife and Truffaut’s globetrotting investigation. But once the two paths start to converge, the movie really starts to hum; Dreyfuss’ character falls in with a young single mother whose child has been abducted and the government mounts a coverup to conceal the upcoming interface. (There’s a wonderful moment when Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon are driving towards the site that the government is cleared. He assures her that it’s all a ruse. Then they pause for a beat and put on gas masks.)

In the years since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s” release, Spielberg has both engaged with it (creating two additional cuts of the film, one of which was released theatrically in 1980) and distanced himself from it (proclaiming that, if he’d made the film today, he wouldn’t have let Roy board the mothership). He should never shy away from those elements of the movie; they give it its flinty grace. And the visual effects from the film, realized by Douglas Trumbull, are among the most powerful of his entire career, with the notes that greet the alien mothership are some of the most iconic in science fiction. It’s a shorthand for great, wide-eyed sci-fi. And for a connection to something beyond ourselves.